Baseball Judgments

Baseball Judgments |

RISP leaves much unanswered


By Roger Weber


There is a common belief that some players perform better than others in key situations. The belief is that players like Derek Jeter have a knack for getting big hits at times when his team most needs them. Of course, perhaps if these players were getting more hits earlier in games they wouldn't need these hits in the late innings. Fans often forget that a player who bats .400 during the regular season adds as much to a team's playoff run by helping the team to reach the playoffs as does a player who is mediocre during the regular season but gets a "big" hit in the postseason.


But let's assume that these "clutch" situations are more important to a team's success than other ones. Is a player who performs better in these situations better than another player who fares more poorly at such times? Perhaps but first let's consider a few points.


Most players' skills do not suddenly improve drastically in certain situations. Screaming fans and runners on base really have little to do with a player's abilities. Perhaps the increased concentration or increased heart rate can sharpen skills very minutely during important plate appearances but that probably doesn't have a terribly large effect on a player's skills. Remember the pitcher and fielders also experience that heightened concentration.


Professional baseball players at least supposedly try all the time. There is not much validity to the idea that some players suddenly try harder in a crucial situation and are thus able to perform better. If they are trying significantly harder in these situations, doesn't it mean that they are trying less hard in regular situations? That does not tell much positive about the player.


Even if the players actually are trying harder, how much can effort bring to a plate appearance? Most die hard fans would try very hard to hit a ball in Game 7 of the World Series but could not. After all, the ball reaches home plate in 0.4 seconds and a player must begin his swing at 0.2 seconds. That is very little time to add effort. Skill accounts for most of a player's ability at the plate, not whether he tries. No matter how much someone thinks or no matter how much effort he puts into making contact with the ball, over 0.2 seconds skill is the main determinant of the outcome of the plate appearance.


When we talk about clutch playoff performances, we are usually talking about two or three times, maybe sometimes as many as five or six big hits. Over any particular set of ten or fifteen at bats, any major league player can look like Superman. Every player in the major leagues has skill to play baseball, and in a game based so much on chance and probability any type of performance can occur over a limited number of chances. It's the same idea as flipping a coin ten times versus a thousand times. Over the thousand you will probably get close to 50% heads, 50% tails. In just ten tosses, though, it isn't impossible to get eight or nine heads or eight or nine tails without the coin being weighted.


But our main question is about statistics with runners in scoring position. At bats with runners in scoring position – second or third base, are considered more important than at bats without runners on base despite the fact that for the runner to get to second base he likely came up with nobody on base. In fact this at bat is not any more important than the first player's at bat because without either one, the player wouldn't score.


Over a season of 500 at bats a player's statistics should at least to some degree of accuracy match his skills. A player's stats are not the same every year nor do they follow a perfect parabolic model so it is clear that some chance and other variables are involved. But there are runners in scoring position almost exactly 25% of the time. This means that if a player comes to bat 500 times during a season there will be runners in scoring position somewhere in the area of 125 times.


Any fan who watches baseball knows that a month into the season players' averages can be very different from what they end up to be. Some are very high, some very low. The same goes for stats with runners in scoring position. Over just 125 at bats there can be large variability. We already discussed confidence intervals, ranges in which a player of a certain ability's stats can exist and be attributed to chance. Over 125 at bats, a .300 quality hitter can hit between .218 and .382 without anything causing the difference but chance and the laws of probability.


So while some players might experience a very small increase or decrease or decrease in ability due to nervousness or concentration when there are runners in scoring position, there is little reason to believe that some hitters are significantly better or worse in these situations. Most of the cause of differing stats in these situations is chance and probability. These are not valuable stats although they can be interesting to use when determining why a team has performed well or poorly. If a team as a whole has had "bad luck" and has hit poorly with runners in scoring position, that may contribute to a sub-par record. "RISP" stats are interesting for explaining reasons for certain other statistics – like a lack or RBI – but are not valuable determinants of a player's ability. Most players over a career will have "RISP" stats about equal to their overall stats as the "sample size" of at bats in each case increases.


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